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Boo! – 10/27/2013

There is a common bit of homiletical advice which says, “When in doubt, begin the sermon with a joke.” So because I am a Unitarian Universalist and doubt is among our most cherished values, I will begin with a few, but I will need a little help. Let’s start with the basics:
A: “Knock, knock.”
B: “Who’s there?”
A: “Boo!”
B: “’Boo’ who?”
A: “I’m sorry to have frightened you. Please don’t get upset. Here, let me try something less intense: How is a raccoon different from a television set?”
B: “I don’t know. How is a raccoon different from a television set?”
A: “In a lot of ways; they’re just pretty different things, as things go. You see, most humor is made out of a combination of things you expect and things you do not expect, reversing roles, undermining preconceived notions. Raccoons and televisions aren’t particularly funny in and of themselves. They’re common, predictable things. But if you buy a new digital raccoon to tell you stories about the Real Housewives of Maycomb, Alambama, and you put the box it came in out with the trash, and then a family of wild television sets knocks over the can, and makes a nest in that box – that’s funny!”
B: “Surrealism isn’t really ‘ha-ha’ funny.”
A: “Alright, let’s try that first one again: Knock, knock.”
B: “Who’s there?”
A: “Boo!”
B: “’Boo’ who?”
A: “Boo Radley; one of the supporting characters in the novel-turned movie, To Kill a Mockingbird – which is set in Maycomb, Alabama. In the story, Boo almost never leaves his house, so you wouldn’t expect him to be knocking on your door. That’s why it’s funny. Knock, knock.
B: “Who’s there?”
A: “To.”
B: “’To’ who?”
A: “No, no. It should be, ‘to whom?’”
B: “Now wait a minute. Our lives, our society, and our entire world depend on certain predictable things: rules that are basically the same wherever you go or whomever you deal with. It gets warmer in the summer and cooler in the winter. Gravity pulls us down. Money can be exchanged for goods and services. A joke might play with those expectations, but it’s still a sort of agreement with rules of its own. You can’t just change the rules in the middle of it.”
A: “Ah, but the expectations we have – the rules, as we understand them – aren’t just natural things, they’re built over time. Sometimes they need to be built up, and sometimes they need to be torn down so that new ones can replace them. Knock, knock.”
B: “Who’s there?”
A: “Boo.”
B: “’Boo’ who?”
A: “No, no. ‘Boo whom?’ As in, Boo Radley, whom we mentioned earlier.
B: Well if we’re going to keep coming back to the classics, tell me this: Who’s on first?”
A: “David Ortiz?”
Let’s stop there – thank you very much. Today’s sermon is the latest installment in our series on the intersection of emotion and spirituality, and our emotion of the day is surprise. Surprise sits at the intersection of fear, celebration, and grief. It is the feeling we get when we get something unexpected, and that feeling can feel good – like with a joke, or at least a good one. It can also be a sort of neutral feeling of puzzlement or curiosity. In the famous story of her adventures in Wonderland, when Alice ate some magical cake and grew to over nine feet tall, surprise was her first response. “Curiouser and curiouser,” she exclaimed. But shock and amazement can soon give way to grief and dismay, as they did for not-so-little Alice, when she realized her size left her trapped in the room, and she began to fill it full with her tears.
In late October, officially the spookiest time of year, we are presented with many opportunities to be startled and shocked. Most are those we are free to choose, others come, well, by surprise. From the vast Halloween industry that feeds the Salem economy, to a tiny plastic spider left by a mischievous loved one on our night stand, now is the season of [gasp]. Modern American Halloween is well-divorced now from its origins in English folk-Christianity, but there are still attempts to connect it to religion.
There is a niche industry designed to compete with haunted houses called hell houses. These are productions that can be as elaborate and involved as the familiar professional ticketed displays, but instead of just providing cheap thrills, they are meant to carry a message. They cater to conservative Christians, and their horrors are presented as depictions of hell. So that the bloody corpse that jumps out at you from the shadows has a back story involving blasphemy, premarital sex, or some other such act their theology deems worthy of eternal punishment. As our tradition takes a hard line against the idea of eternal damnation, I sort of wonder what the Unitarian Universalist equivalent of a hell house would look like. We sometimes say that hell is the condition of suffering that human beings create for themselves and each other through malice and indifference. Perhaps depictions and reenactments, then, of famine and genocide, or of the numbness and self-loathing: the quieter consequences of bigotry and contempt. That seems to me, if anything, even less entertaining than the fundamentalist sort.
But surprise does not have to leap out from behind a corner and frighten us in order to be instructive – in order to teach. In the famous story of Archimides in the bath, the Greek philosopher was just settling in for a soak when he noticed the way the water level rose as he got in. He realized that this could help him solve a puzzle he’d been working on and shouted “I’ve found it!” – ‘Heureka’, in the Greek. The story continues that in his excitement to report his solution, he jumped out of the tub and ran through the streets of the city naked, so that one shock for him must have led to a few more for his neighbors.
Great insights and realizations come to us as surprises – departures from the familiar course of life into some new and awesome mode of being. Surprise is a major recurring theme in human religious thought, but its character varies wildly. Gautama Buddha is said to have sat under his tree for 49 days in his quest to attain enlightenment. The lead up to that final achievement is full of drama: he nearly starves until a young girl offers him porridge. In one version, the demon Mara commands an army to attack the seated mystic, all to no avail. But the actual moment of enlightenment is peaceful, serene: like waking up gently from a very deep sleep.
At perhaps the other end of the spectrum is the story of the prophet Muhammad. In the story of his first moment of revelation, he stood alone in a cave on a hill. An angel appeared before him – all power and light – and he could suddenly see letters of fire carved into the sky beyond the mouth of the cave. “Read,” the angel commanded over and over, as the poor man protested that he was illiterate. Until the angel grabbed him, and held him, and by some unknown force the man could read for the first time in his life. Now that is shock and surprise!
Again and again in the Abrahamic tradition – the collective name for Judaism, Christianity and Islam – the common expectations of the original audience for a sacred story are undermined. In a culture where first born sons are the assured heirs to their fathers’ property, second borns inherit instead – first Isaac from Abraham, and then Jacob from Isaac. A people enslaved become a great nation, and the crucible of three of the most influential religions

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in human history. The story of Moses reverses the standard plot of legendary kings in the ancient middle east: in their stories, a child of low class and no prospects comes from the wild to civilization and is revealed to secretly have a noble birth – he becomes a great ruler because he was meant to be king all along. Moses is a child raised in the heart of civilization, and the top of his society’s pyramid, who is revealed to secretly have been born a slave – his role of leadership takes him out into the wilderness and away from the privilege and power of his upbringing.
The teacher Jesus is famous for lessons that upend expectations. It is part of the thumbnail sketch that many of us were raised with: having long hair and a beard, turning the other cheek, and saying crazy things that cause lots of trouble. In the parable of the great banquet, the honored guests who get to enjoy the sumptuous food and generous hospitality are the poor and disabled. In the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, the repentant sinner is favored over the man who is righteous but proud. In the parable of the workers in the vineyard, everyone receives the same pay, whether they worked all day, or just for a bit of it. The stories are worn down by familiarity, they have been translated and re-translated, and displaced from their context by thousands of miles and thousands of years. But still, the words attributed to Jesus fall like punchlines. “For the last shall be first and the first shall be last.” Bet you didn’t see that one coming. Surprise: “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” Get it?
Before it became common wisdom to open pretty much any sermon with a joke, there was a tradition among German preachers to lead with a joke on Easter Sunday each year. This was called the risus paschalis – the paschal joke or Easter joke. It was meant to set a parallel for the grand cosmic joke of the Easter story. A teacher teaches until he is silenced by the authorities, is captured and killed, his students wail and mourn and then, the great reversal of expectations: an empty tomb. The constant of death upended. What a punchline! What a surprise!
One of the reasons why surprise is so crucial to religious experience is that the things that surprise us – the points where the course of life departs from the expected – are the things that we do best at remembering. A few years ago, Deb told us the story of the ten plagues. She had all kinds of props and puppets and sound cues. She even tossed out confetti to symbolize the plague of insects. I can’t remember what I preached that day – I certainly wouldn’t expect the rest of you to – but I remember that story. That Sunday also points to how such breaks from the common place can often have unexpected consequences. It took forever to clean up that confetti.
Many surprises, though, are more than just minor conveniences requiring a vacuum cleaner. The hardest points in life: losing a job, ending a relationship, or the death of a loved one: sometimes we can see these coming from a little ways off, but their date is rarely preordained. If we are happy in the lives we have, and can only be surprised when those lives veer off course, than it is no surprise that so many of us dread surprises. How many of us here this morning, I wonder, came here for the first time – perhaps even today – because of some terrible surprise we needed help in grappling with? Community – real community, forged out of deep relationship –

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is meant to magnify our joys, and soften our sorrows, through sharing.
Sometimes, the surprise doesn’t come from something unexpected; it comes from everything continuing as normal. In 1833, the American preacher William Miller declared that the second coming and the end of history would take place in roughly ten years time. Interest in his prophecy and biblical interpretation grew over the next decade. By 1843 he was at the head of a national movement, looking to him for a more specific date on which they could expect the world to end. March 21, 1844 became the first official deadline. When it passed, the certain target was moved to April 18. After that, the day of reckoning was declared to be set for October 22. None of these dates proved to be the last in recorded history. The whole affair came to be known as the Great Disappointment, though it was more than just a historical footnote. Entire new Christian denominations were formed from the surprise of no surprise at all as the former Millerites scattered in search of a new truth to follow.
When we refuse to see or acknowledge the obvious, we must eventually be surprised. Like the ancient Chinese story of the thief who set out to steal a great iron bell in the dark quiet of night. He stole, unseen, into the fortress where it lay, unhooked it from its fixture and by a great feat of strength made off with it. His plan was working perfectly: he could not hear even the faintest noise from the bell as he ran with it. When the guards surrounded him and forced his surrender before he could make his way home, the thief was perplexed. “But how could they have heard me?” he wondered, as he took the cotton from his ears.
By its definition, surprise comes when it comes: it cannot be forced. You might demand of your loved ones that they throw you a surprise birthday party – plan it all out for them, with a time and a place all arranged. But the actual feeling of surprise would be as far from that as it could possibly be. What we can do, is cultivate a willingness, even a desire, to be surprised. An openness to see what is really there, even when it does not make sense or meet our expectations. All wonder, all awe, requires some sense of surprise. Even the flowering of a plant, the ending of a storm, the growth of a child – things that must happen, and do happen every day, millions of times over – there is surprise to marvel at even here. The surprise that something as vast and as delicate as the world continues on.
In To Kill a Mockingbird, the character of Boo Radley is an ominous mystery. He lives as a recluse on the margins of the town, rumors swirling about his strange ways and tarnished history. When he finally appears outside his home for the first time, he looks like a ghost: gaunt and pale. He is a frightful image, a child’s boogey man come to life. But he doesn’t come out to scare or to harm. Boo steps out of the literal and metaphorical shadows when he does in order to save lives, to stop a dangerous man and rescue the Finch children. The line between fear and wonder is thin, and sometimes heroes look like monsters.
We live in a world built out of expectations, not all of which can last against the strange and unpredictable unfolding of time. We can hide from it, turn away and ignore new information that disrupts old ways of thinking, and doing our best to insulate ourselves from the inevitable. Or we can step out of the limited familiarity of our cherished understanding of “the way things have always been,” and try to meet the unexpected on our own terms. Knowing this, may we go out into the world with the will to be surprised.

The Sin of Wages – 10/20/2013

There is an old story, about a traveler who was passing through the countryside and came upon a man with a hammer and chisel, cutting a hunk of granite into a clean, precise block. The traveler approached the man and, out of curiosity, asked what he was doing. “I am a stonecutter,” he said gruffly. “I am doing my job.”
Continuing on, the traveler met a second man engaged in much the same work as the first: smoothing out a large, rough piece of stone into something suitable for building with. He asked the same question, and got this response and a small smile, “I am working as a stonecutter, to support my family.”
Last, the traveler came to a third man, chiseling away at a piece of stone just like the rest. “What are you doing?” he asked.
The worker turned to the traveler, his face glowing with wonder, and replied, “I am helping to build a cathedral, and I am cutting stone in order to do it.”
This story has been passed around enough and told in so many different ways that I couldn’t find an original source for it. But usually, when it is told, the moral goes something like this: the third worker, who defines himself by doing something grand and glorious, is the happiest, the most satisfied. That’s the person in the story we’re supposed to want to be like – and, when the story is told by organizational consultants, as it sometimes is, that’s the sort of person we’re supposed to want our employees to be. But like any work of art, if you stare long enough at it, questions begin to emerge:
Why is the third worker any better than the first? Does the one produce blocks any better or more quickly than the other? What’s so bad, after all, about giving a short, simple answer when a stranger asks you a foolish question in the middle of your work day? Is customer service really a critical qualification for being a stonecutter? Isn’t it possible to care about the project and your family at the same time? Shouldn’t any sane working person be worried about earning a living, whether or not they are building a cathedral? And over all this, that grand impertinent question: why should we care?
This sermon is the first in a monthly series addressing that very question, “Why Should We Care?”. Specifically, why should we care about matters of justice, or what happens to anyone we do not already know and like personally? We Unitarian Universalists are famous for a lack of consensus: there is no issue or subject on which we all think or feel exactly alike. But, there are many matters on which we have, as a movement, taken a public position. There are causes for which our theological ancestors argued and agitated. There are also current debates in which our association has chosen a side through representatives from our member congregations. For the next several months, we’ll be looking at some of these issues together – as an exercise not of political argument but of theological exploration. We’ll consider together what the arguments for – and in some cases against – the common positions of our faith are. As a reminder, just as with everything I have ever said from this pulpit, you are not required to believe or to agree with a single word I say. But it is our responsibility to each other to consider one another’s reasonings and beliefs, to engage deeply and critically with the living tradition we share, and to live our lives in accordance with the truth as we each understand it.
Our particular topic today is work – its value and meaning, and what rights and protections those who work ought to be afforded. The General Assembly of our association of congregations has passed several statements of conscience and public position in this area. At this national level, we have called for a living wage for all workers, and gone even a step beyond that, declaring, “every person has an inherent and moral right to work at a meaningful wage.” The wording of these resolutions can get rather dry, but in one of its more poetic turns our General Assembly proclaimed a universal human right to, “a job, a home, and a hope” : decent, safe work that provides a means to live, a safe place to do that living in, and the hope that the conditions of one’s life can be improved. At least three of the seven principles that we have agreed to as a movement are pointed to as justification for these positions: the belief that all people matter, the understanding that justice, equity, and compassion all fit together into the ideal shape of human relationship, and the appreciation that we are all connected, so that what harms any human being harms us all.
But I want to dig a little deeper than this, so let us begin at the beginning, with the first stories in the first book of the scriptures of the Jewish and Christian traditions that so deeply inform and influence our own. Most of us will remember that the book of Genesis opens with the creation of the world – you may also recall that in the first three chapters we get two different origin stories for the earth, its inhabitants, and the human condition. Modern biblical scholarship tells us that these two stories were written centuries apart by different people with very different theologies, speaking to very different audiences. But as throughout the rest of the bible, a mixed chorus of voices creates new beauty out of dissonance and harmony.
In the opening of Genesis, the earth is created in seven days. “…God separated the light from the darkness…And there was evening and there was morning, a first day.” God separated the sea from the sky – a second day. Dry land and all plants appear on the third, the sun and moon on the fourth, fish and birds on the fifth, and all the animals that live on land – including us humans – on the sixth day. And then, “On the seventh day, God finished the work that God had been doing, and God ceased on the seventh day from all the work God had done.” This text and many others throughout the rest of the bible are often pointed to in justifying an understanding of God as king, as supreme authority over the universe, the great architect and director of all things. But the character of God in this story does not lay out directions for someone else to follow, and does not simply give orders that employees or subordinates execute. This image of God changes things directly, through effort – through work. This a story about labor – labor on a grand, supernatural scale, but labor nonetheless. In the metaphor of business, this God is not a manager. Genesis opens with a metaphor of a divine worker, and it builds to the lesson, on the seventh day, that the work isn’t finished, the job isn’t done, until the people who did the work have their rest.
Every theology has its potentials and its limitations, and one of the limitations of a theology that imagines God as a king, a boss, or an overseer of events, is that it lends itself to a hierarchical reading of the universe. Reality is defined by a ladder of power: some are at the bottom, others in the middle, a few at the top. There might be free arguments about who belongs on what rung, but at the end of the day the fact that there is a vertical structure of power, of dominion and control is taken as a good thing. As Unitarians and Universalists and even before the invention of those names, our theological ancestors challenged that notion. It is why we hold the ideal of democracy sacred – sacred in the religious as well as the secular sense. Leaders can find legitimacy through election, or gain authority by taking responsibility that others fear or neglect, but power, in the understanding of our tradition, must be shared in order to be just. Today, as a religion we hold many different views of God including the absence of God, but among the most common choices is what is sometimes called religious naturalism. This means understanding divinity as something that exists in the unfolding of natural processes. God – if you like that name – is to be found in the living and dying of all things, in the vast creative and fierce destructive power of the world that surrounds and includes us. If holy is to be found in the ongoing work of the ever-spinning universe, I would submit that that ennobles even the most basic and humble of professions. Just pushing a broom or collecting garbage from the street, we are moving around the very stuff of stars, sorting fragments of the body of God.
Now the second creation story in Genesis is that of the Garden of Eden. You know the bullet points: Eve and Adam, a mischievous snake, and a powerful piece of fruit – never actually called an apple in the text. At the end of it, the first humans are banished from the garden and three curses are pronounced. The first is for the snake: fated, henceforth, to crawl on its belly. (A question for another day: how did it get around before that?) Human beings receive the next two judgments: one is childbirth, and the pain that accompanies it. The other is toil: food will no longer come free from the earth – the land will have to be worked for it. So the close of this story is quite literally about labor: it is a mythic explanation for the way things are. Existence does not simply give us everything we want through no effort of our own or anyone else’s – it requires work.
The departure from the garden is traditionally read as a great loss, a terrible tragedy. Judaism, Christianity and Islam all view it somewhat differently, but all three traditions contain voices of great longing for it, wanting to return to its ‘perfect’ state. Now the ethic of Unitarian Universalism, which accepts truth and rejects falsehood no matter what sort of containers each are found in, I believe requires us not to dismiss this or any other story in scripture. But, it also demands that we be willing to read against the grain as well as with it. The state of being that the ending of Genesis 3 suggests to have existed in the garden – where there were no children or possibility of children, and no need to work or struggle for any reason – is so alien to what it means to be human, that I cannot call it good. What would even be the reason to relate to one another if we had no needs to provide for, and no younger generations to make us think about the future? Eden serves

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as a model for ideal world in many respects, free of war or famine or pain, but it is only after Eden in the biblical narrative that human beings become human, just as the snake is not really a snake, until it is sentenced to crawl. The story explains that we are all in this together: all possessed of the same basic needs: food and shelter. (And I would elaborate: meaning and belonging.) Each of these human needs requires human effort to meet them. So we can struggle separately in a false autonomy, pretending that we are self-made and better off alone. Or we can work together, and realize the strange promise of our own humanity. As the great Unitarian minister A. Powell Davies put it, “life is just a chance to grow a soul.” And to grow the things we need requires us to work, or so the bible says.
Now someone this morning is thinking, even if it is only just me: Alright preacher – come on down out of your ivory tower. Turn aside the golden pages of your bible and see if you can connect any of this to the world of things as they are. What does all your theology have to do with labor policy in the year 2013? Well friends, if all work that serves any need plays a part in the ongoing revelation of the sacred in the universe, then the idea that there are some jobs that ought to pay out in fortunes and some that ought to yield starvation wages cannot stand. In fact, the service economy, the janitors, the garbage collectors, the people who work behind the counter at McDonalds, the folks who help us into and out of our beds and empty our bedpans when our own bodies are not up to the task – their work, your work, if you are one of them – seems to me particularly valuable.
Our tradition teaches us that every human life is precious and valuable on an infinite scale. Trying to make that work out justly in the language of hourly pay rates is difficult, if not impossible. But if you work full time – or as much time as you or many of your neighbors can find – you ought at least to be able to keep food

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on your table, and a roof over your head, and some hope of a more abundant life before you. Any system of wages that does not allow for this is broken and fails to meet any basic standard of justice and fairness. This sin of wages occurs wherever our system of compensation – our system for recognizing and valuing work – leaves some with too much and too many with not enough.
We cannot all build cathedrals, and we cannot all be excited and awed by the work that we do every second of every day – at least not yet, not in the imperfect world that we inhabit. It is alright, even appropriate at times to feel undervalued in what you do, or simply long for some other sort of work you think would be more satisfying, or more rewarding, or more fun. Sometimes that can lead to the hard work of an important change; and sometimes not. Now that the Red Sox have taken the pennant some of us might be thinking how we could be headed to the World Series ourselves, if only we had grown our facial hair out a bit more, and had different levels of physical talent and ability than we do, and made completely different decisions with our lives up to this point. But if we lend our minds and bodies to something, anything, that offers some beauty or sustenance to the world, we should, in a society of decent aims, be assured that the world will sustain us in turn. This is the counsel of our tradition as I understand it. Whether you accept or reject it, and what you do with whatever you do or do not accept: that is the work that lies before each of us, this morning.

Knowing What We’ve Found – 10/6/2013

The parable of the blind men and the elephant, which we heard earlier, is common to several different religious traditions: to Buddhism, Jainism, Hinduism and Sufi Islam. It is a particular favorite of Unitarian Universalists, referenced by us at least as often as the stone soup folk tale, the call of Isaiah or the sermon on the mount. We are drawn to the story because it illustrates how different people can experience the same thing differently. And it counsels humility in the face of disagreement, since with our limited selves we can each find some of the truth, but can’t discover all of it on our own. In fact, we can get the closest to knowing the whole story only by comparing notes with other people who have a different piece of the truth than we do.

There is an inversion of this same story that the psychotherapist Steve Andreas used in the title of his two volume book, Six Blind Elephants. It goes like this: once, a group of blind elephants were talking about this thing and that, and came to the subject of human beings. Because they could not agree on just what sort of things humans were, they agreed that they would find one and examine it for themselves. When they finally did come across a human, the first elephant reached out with one of its legs and felt around for it. The others all followed suit. Once they had done so a few times to be certain, all the elephants agreed: human beings are flat.

This can be taken as an extreme example of what science calls the observer effect: the way the studying or measuring an object or phenomenon changes it. As Unitarian Universalists we are committed to seek after truth and to hold fast to it and act on it where we find it, but that just begs the question: how will we know it when we find it? How often, in fact, do we humans come across things of inestimable value and fail to recognize them – fail to recognize not just what the elephant is, but even that one is in front of us?

At the intersecting borders of Israel, Palestine, and Jordan, the salt waters of the Dead Sea rest at more than 1,000 feet below sea level – the lowest elevation found on any continent. That part of the world is often described in the west as being all desert – it is not. There are sources of fresh water and large stretches of green and growing things all throughout the eastern Mediterranean. But the Dead Sea is one of the places where the region lives up to its reputation. The waters are so salty that they are nearly useless to any sort of life – even the hardiest microorganisms – and the surrounding area is rocky, dry terrain where few plants or animals can grow or live. But there is still enough scrub grass for nomadic shepherds to pass through the area grazing their flocks, and this was what brought three Bedouin men – Muhammed Edh-Dib, Jum’a Muhammed, and Khalil Musa – to the shores of the Dead Sea in 1947. By chance, they made one of the most celebrated discoveries in 20th century archeology.

Passing by a cave in the rocky hills, one of the Muslim men tossed a stone inside and heard the sound of pottery breaking. Their exploration revealed manuscripts with Hebrew letters – the first of what would come to be called the Dead Sea scrolls. The Bedouins had no way of knowing exactly what they had found – the texts were faded and obscured, written in archaic forms of a language they did not speak. They could recognize that they were very old, and might be worth something to someone. Finding that someone, though, was not an easy prospect. One of the first potential buyers they approached rejected the documents, assuming that they must have been stolen from a Jewish synagogue. That first potential buyer couldn’t imagine beyond his own limited understanding. He was like the child in an ancient Chinese story, the son of a great horse expert who tried to find a fast, strong steed by following his father’s advice. “Look,” he said, “I have found just the one, with a tall, wide forehead and large eyes, just as you taught me.” Only the father had actually seen a horse in person before – his son’s prized find was actually a toad. Exasperated, he replied, “This horse likes jumping, but you just can’t ride it.”

More than a year after their discovery, the scrolls wound their way to a cobbler and part-time antiquities dealer. He bought them for a tiny sum, and sold them for a larger amount that is still incredibly small in retrospect. The materials were divided up and some of them wound their way to the United States. All of this took place as the war that led to the modern state of Israel was breaking out – the tensions between Arabs and the Jews who were most interested in these artifacts made open negotiations for them almost impossible. The conflict also complicated exploration of the cave where the scrolls were found, once the story of these works made its way to scholars excited by the prospect of finding more.

Finding something precious, whether a lost treasure, a deep truth, or any other potential source of joy, is not enough to make use of it, not if we don’t understand what we’ve found. Even with understanding, we may not have the means to fully make use of such a find. We can end up like the three Bedouin shepherds, convinced to sell some of the most prized objects the history of biblical archeology for the modern equivalent of $29.

What Muhammed, Jum’a, and Khalil had found, it turns out, were some of the very oldest biblical documents known to exist – from the period of the Second Temple, between 2,000 and 2,500 years ago. Explorations around the first cave eventually found more, with evidence of an ancient building on the hilltop above. This cache of documents includes ancient copies of books which can be found in the Hebrew bible, as well as other scriptural texts that didn’t make it into that canon – apocryphal books, they are called. There are also more unique records, evidence of a particular religious community with its own particular way of living and worshipping together. The study of this vast collection has been an ongoing international project for sixty years now. Most of them are kept in a special museum wing called the Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem, though you can see a few of them for yourself for the next few weeks as part of a touring exhibit at the Museum of Science in Boston.

Recognizing, or failing to recognize, the true value of an object is reoccurring trope in folklore. In the tale of Aladdin, the magic lamp containing a powerful, wish granting genie is left in the care of a young woman who does not know its true value. A scheming sorcerer tricks her into trading it away by disguising himself as a foolish merchant and going through her neighborhood calling out a too-good-to-be-true offer: “Old lamps for new! Old lamps for new!” In one of archeologist-adventurer Indiana Jones’ films, he must choose the true Holy Grail from among a collection of false cups. The right choice means eternal life, the wrong one instant death. The whip-slinging professor finds the right cup in a matter of instants, because of his superior insight as a scholar of antiquities, and because he is the hero of the story.

In reality, however, knowing the true value of whatever we have found is not so simple. Even once their historical importance was clear, the scholars studying the Dead Sea scrolls had no idea how to properly treat and care for them. Photographs from the early years show researchers working in sunlit rooms and smoking cigarettes around ancient materials now kept in dark, climate-controlled environments. Fragments of papyrus and animal hide were fixed in place with scotch tape; modern restoration work is thus focused more on repairing damage done in the early years of study than in the centuries the scrolls lay undiscovered. Knowing that something is precious does not always

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mean we know how to treat it with care and respect – or that we will do so.

The origin and meaning of the scrolls themselves is also still in dispute, after half a century of careful study. They were, for a long time, attributed to a little-understood, self-isolating Jewish community called the Essenes. The thinking was that the Essenes made their home on the hill above the caves. More recently, scholars have begun to agree that the texts found in the caves were made elsewhere, possibly brought there from several different locations to be hidden to protect them from the armies of Rome. Collections of plates and bowls have been found amongst the documents – this was said to be because one of the most important practices for the Essenes was the sharing of a ritual meal. But now one of the competing theories is that the building above the caves was never the center of a religious community – instead, it was a pottery works, and all those plates and bowls are just leftover goods that were never sold.

Yet, even with so much uncertainty and unanswered questions, the Dead Sea scrolls have a tremendous amount to tell us. They demonstrate evolution in Hebrew as a written language, and show how the wording of scripture which is today thought to be set in stone actually varied in earlier eras. And they form a snap-shot of religious thinking in Judea in the time around the life of Jesus. There were conflicts between established religious authorities and new groups searching for a purer, more authentic way, fear and anger at living under Roman occupation, and an obsession with a dramatic end of human history, thought to be just around the corner.

A week ago, another story involving incredibly valuable things buried in the desert came to an end: Breaking Bad, the television program about a mild-mannered high school chemistry teacher who transforms himself into the kingpin of a methamphetamine empire through a grueling process of violence and betrayal. Throughout the story, the main character, Walt, insists to himself and to everyone else that his only motive is to leave behind an inheritance to his wife and children, since he knows that he is dying of cancer. He uses love of family to justify progressively more and more terrible and destructive acts – a fictionalized exaggeration of an all-too terribly common practice. But in one of the show’s final scenes – COVER YOUR EARS NOW IF YOU DON’T WANT ANY SPOILERS – Walt finally finds it in him to admit the truth, “I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it.” The story demonstrates the limits of “following your joy” as a moral guideline – finding something enjoyable isn’t a sure sign that it’s right. It also points to the danger that results when we lose sight of the value of what we already have. Walter White began his story with financial problems, professional disappointments and the frightful prospect of impending mortality – but he also had a partner and a child who loved him, with another on the way. He ended his story with nothing but the wreckage he had wrought and the consolation that he undid a bit of it in his final hours. “Not what we have, but what we enjoy, constitutes our abundance,” said the Greek philosopher Epicurus. When we undervalue what we do have, no new acquisition can fill that hole; when we are driven by scarcity it leads to self-destruction.

If the story of the Dead Sea scrolls is about recognizing the true value in things, about coming to understand the elephants we meet, what model does it offer? In the Jewish tradition it is said of the Torah, “Turn it and turn it again, for everything is in it.” A quick judgment of some chance find, or realization, or human relationship is rarely the final word. The study of the scrolls and the caves where they were found has taken thousands of people decades of careful work, and it is still going on. If we were to devote ourselves with even a tiny fraction of that dedication to the study of our own lives – of what we have, what we need, and what is true by the light of our own experience – what wonders might we find?

As a metaphor, this study also shows us that trying to make such an exploration all on our own has little chance of success. Great undertakings of discovery require many people working together. This is what congregations such as ours exist to do: we help each other examine our own stories, find what is best in them, and live more closely in accordance with what we find. We do this by intentionally being a part of each others’ lives: by worshiping together, learning and serving together. Getting to know one another, and offering our encouragement to each other, as well as our admonition, should we go astray. It is also up to us to discern collectively what our collective is for and about: to name and to follow our mission as a congregation. It’s something that needs to be renewed and revisited regularly, as we change and grow. Just in the past several months I believe I see a new sense of who we are together emerging, as the spiritual practice of hospitality moves towards center of our congregational identity. As individuals and as one community, we grow and change over time and our sense of what matters most – though it may be rooted deeply and securely – also moves with us.

Among the many documents contained in the Dead Sea scrolls is a composition called the Community Rule. This text spelled out the rules and expectations of the religious group that created it: what they believed, how they lived together, what they were for and about. Though very different in form and shape, and dramatically more concerned with doctrine and uniformity of belief and behavior, this ancient document is not so far removed from the words that are critical to our own community: our bylaws, our mission statement, and the words we say together each week. For thousands of years, people of faith have come together to support and sustain each other in the quest for truth and the hard work of living. Ours is just one manifestation of an incredibly ancient pattern.

On the Move

The Unitarian Universalist Association is moving. Well, that’s slightly misleading – the UUA is just the name we give to ourselves, all of us Unitarian Universalists and our congregations, as we work together. So of course, at any given time a great many of us are in motion. But we do have a national office, and that office is in Boston, at 25 Beacon Street (with two other adjacent buildings and another nearby). And in not too long, it won’t be.

They aren’t moving far: just off Beacon Hill and over to 24 Farnsworth Street in the Seaport District, conveniently close to the Boston Children’s Museum. The current property will be sold to fund the new. If you’ve never been to 25 Beacon before, all of this probably sounds like rather bland news – but people can grow attached to places they feel are important. I am one of those people, and 25 is one of those places.

The first time I visited our headquarters, I was 14, on a trip to Boston with the Coming of Age class from my home congregation. One of a gaggle of young Unitarian Universalists, coming to see the mothership for the first time. It seemed old in a way that felt unfamiliar and important; the church I grew up in was built in 1962 and looks the part. 25 Beacon was and is full of brown woodwork, irregular doorways, and paintings from before the electrical age. We were given a tour, I remember – I’ve taken that same tour several times since with other Coming of Age classes, as a youth advisor, and then a minister. I also worked in the basement of one of the UUA’s properties for a time. Their complex is right next to the statehouse – one of our ground-level windows looked out onto its lawn. On days when there were protests for or against something, we could hear every chant. Sometimes we went out to join in.

I have a deep appreciation for that place where great leaders of our faith have served, where great ideas and plans have been conceived and carried out, and where great work has been done for generations, supporting our congregations and our movement. When I heard about this plan to move, I was aghast. Where was our reverence for history? The administration is planning to move because their current space is small and crammed, with poor accessibility, zero flexibility, and technical barriers that are bad news for a modern office (such as a lack of high-speed internet). Compelling, pragmatic reasons, but not enough to sway my attachment to a place I consider sacred.

Change is a vital, essential element of living. Of the big changes, we can all expect to experience at least a few: the beginning of a relationship or its ending, a move to a new town or city, starting a job or finishing one, failing or succeeding at something we feel passionately about – the list goes on. There is a way of approaching change that is about escaping or abandoning the past: starting afresh, rejecting whatever was hard or painful in what has gone before. We can make it through life like that, but we will find less and less of ourselves there at the end of each transition. You can only the leave the pieces of yourself behind so many times before you run out. The alternative to this is to acknowledge that wherever we come to, we are always a product of our history. However jagged or rough the path that led us to now, it was our path. When we make peace enough with our own story to be able to live with it honestly, we may come to appreciate parts of it even more fully than when we were living them.

This is what finally won me over to the possibility of this new location for our association’s headquarters: the promise that the new space will include a dedicated space for the artifacts and stories that will be carried over from the previous buildings. From taking the tour so many times, as well as seeing behind the scenes, I know that much of the history of 25 lies below the surface – just as is the case in so many places. Paintings and plaques and memorabilia that were tucked away in inaccessible rooms or private offices can now be featured prominently, given a fuller context, and shared with far more visitors. Every change holds a loss, sometimes small and sometimes great, and we should never be quick to surrender precious things. But when the situation cannot remain or return to how it was, when our circumstances demand transformation, it can provide an opportunity to regather the scattered pieces of ourselves.


In Faith,

Rev. Kelly Weisman Asprooth-Jackson

To learn more about the move, to share your remembrances of 25 Beacon, or to contribute towards the relocation effort, please go here.


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